Andy Scherffius lands planes, and handles plane-crash litigation, safely
Published in 2010 Georgia Super Lawyers magazine on February 25, 2010
In December 2004 Lynn Jones’ husband died in a private-plane crash in Tennessee. His body was so badly burned she was advised not to view it at the funeral home. Their daughter was only in second grade.
“Our lives stopped on a dime,” Jones recalls. “I don’t even remember what my husband wore that morning he walked out to go to work. He had to get up much earlier than I did, and it was a quick kiss and that was that. It was over. He never walked in that door again.”
Lawyers seeking to represent her in a possible lawsuit descended quickly. “I was not impressed by any of that,” she says. Then a friend told her about Andrew M. Scherffius, a founding partner of Scherffius, Ballard, Still & Ayres in Atlanta.
“He has that quiet confidence that says, ‘I’m here to help you and I believe we can get the job done, but I’m not assuming anything,’” Jones says. “You want to feel confident enough to just turn your case over to somebody. I could be someone who could micromanage things—to be the first to know that everybody is doing what they’re supposed to be doing—but I never had to do that with him. His office always led.”
The lawsuit led to an eventual confidential settlement.
“We live in a kind of perverse world,” says Scherffius, sitting in the conference room of his firm’s Colony Square suite, near his own modest, nondescript office. “A great case is, of course, a huge tragedy to a family. You have to view cases somewhat objectively to be effective, but it’s never objective to the family. Never. It’s always a terrible tragedy that has happened, and, on top of that, the litigation is always stressful. They have to relive the [tragedy] day-to-day and have no idea what the result will be.”
His words reflect his courtroom demeanor: low-key, to the point, and with a strong focus on the tragedy.
“Andy’s the antithesis of what most people think of as a very successful trial lawyer,” says Bill Bird of the Bird Law Group in Atlanta, who was Scherffius’ colleague at Neely, Freeman and Hawkins in the 1970s before the two hung their own shingle for most of the 1980s. “He’s understated and self-deprecating. When he talks to a jury, it’s like he’s having a chat at a cocktail party with some people he just met. But Andy’s also very tenacious, and if you’re not prepared for him, he’ll flat sneak up on you.”
“He’s probably one of the best plaintiff’s lawyers I’ve ever had in front of me,” says Phil Etheridge, a senior judge in Fulton County Superior Court. “He doesn’t try to be anything he’s not. Andy’s very knowledgeable and straightforward, and he just lays it out there in a simple, understandable way.”
Scherffius’ portfolio includes major products liability and medical malpractice lawsuits, but his national reputation rests on his work in aviation. Over the past quarter-century, he has handled more than 60 aviation cases. It was a practice area he stumbled into while taking flying lessons at DeKalb Peachtree in the late 1970s. When a friend of his flight instructor died in a crash, Scherffius was asked to take the case. “I’ve been flying ever since and handling aviation cases ever since,” he says.
For years, Scherffius averaged 200 hours of annual flying time. Even today, at age 61, he logs well over 100 hours, often taking his Piper Cheyenne II on business trips out of DeKalb Peachtree Airport.
“Flying’s an intense activity, but in many respects it’s relaxing, too,” Scherffius says. “You concentrate on the flying and the rest of it has to wait. It’s a welcome break in the midst of the work and the deadlines and the stress.
“It [also] gives you insight into the [aviation] system, and it’s a very complicated one,” he says. “I like the intricacy of it all—how aircraft work, and how aircraft and pilots and the air traffic control system mesh.”
Name a major aviation case with Georgia roots and there’s a good chance Scherffius was involved. He represented numerous families of victims following the crash of ValuJet Flight 592. After a mechanical problem doomed Atlantic Southeast Airlines Flight 529 near Carrollton, Ga., in 1995, Scherffius represented the family of the pilot. He also represented the family of a passenger killed on an ASA flight in 1991. All three crashes led to confidential settlements.
The ValuJet disaster, in which all 110 on board perished, underscored a common thread in aviation cases, Scherffius says. “Most of the time a plane crash is due to a chain of events. Very seldom is it just one thing.”
In this case, oxygen canisters being illegally transported in the cargo bay caught on fire during flight. The National Transportation Safety Board laid the blame on three parties: the airline, a maintenance contractor (SabreTech) and the Federal Aviation Administration.
“The ValuJet crash brought home just how complex commercial flying is,” Scherffius says. “If someone in the very complex chain of suppliers and maintenance facilities chooses not to play strictly by the rules, you get a disaster like ValuJet. … It was a classic example of a chain that broke in several places.”
Amid the complexity, Scherffius deploys a simple M.O. “I try to be straight with all court personnel,” he says. “No tricks. I try to take the facts, lay out exactly what I’m going to do and then do it. I don’t engage in histrionics, and I’m not much on the use of the media, either before or during the trial. Sometimes cases get covered, naturally, but I don’t seek that type of media influence.”
Scherffius grew up, he says, “pretty much around the country,” the son of a construction worker who moved frequently at his company’s behest. His father had no college education but rose from assistant pipe fitter to a management position. Asked what he learned from his father, the response comes quickly: “Hard work,” he says.
The family finally settled in Aiken, S.C., where Scherffius went to high school. He was a good enough basketball player to be invited to try out at the University of Georgia but not good enough to make the team. “When I got over there, there were players a lot better than I was,” he says.
Scherffius earned an undergraduate degree in economics, engaged in a Vietnam War protest or two, and attended UGA School of Law, from which he graduated in 1974. Then he joined Neely, Freeman and Hawkins, a well-known firm with a large insurance caseload and a fledgling plaintiff’s practice being built by Paul Hawkins. A rookie trial lawyer couldn’t have landed in higher cotton.
“Insurance defense firms carried tremendous loads of files back then, and the trial opportunities were limitless,” he says. “I got to try a lot of cases in a very short period of time. … It takes a long time to really develop trial skills. They call it trial practice for good reason.”
Scherffius discovered he relished the courtroom. Lawyers who don’t like going to court “really should find something else to do,” he says with a laugh.
“A trial is the culmination of usually a couple years of hard, hard work, putting up with a lot and having a lot of flesh taken out of your hide,” he says. “It’s a very intense, concentrated experience. Some people compare a trial to the theater and acting, but I’ve never really looked at it that way. For one thing, there’s far more at stake. Actors take off the makeup and go home, but it’s never really over for a trial lawyer. You live with these cases for years. If you lose, you have other cases, but these families don’t. My memory may not be perfect, but I’ve [forgotten] the facts of very few cases.”
“I tried a lot of cases with Andy, and you definitely had to run to keep up with him,” says Bird. “He’s exquisitely prepared. A witness might throw a curveball that would bring other lawyers to their knees, but you’d never see him sweat. … And he just has a knack of making the complicated understandable.”
Bird recalls a lawsuit against a car manufacturer that was tried in Eatonton, Ga. A woman was driving her new car when the left tie rod literally dropped out on the road. She lost control and hit a tree. An expert defense witness out of Detroit argued that the woman, who was going about 25 mph at the time, should have been able to control the vehicle anyway.
Enter Scherffius, who posed a hypothetical question to the witness: Suppose we put you and your family in that same car and give you free tickets to Disney World. Off you go to Orlando. How fast would you have to be going before you’d want to get your family out of the car? Fifty-five miles per hour?
“The guy was like a deer in the headlights,” Bird says. The witness agreed that he wouldn’t want his family in the car at 55. How about 50? Another uneasy headshake, and so too at 35 and 30 mph, despite a frantic defense counsel objection to kill that line of inquiry.
“Before 25 mph, Andy paused and looked at the jury,” Bird says. Chalk up a victory.
Scherffius’ largest jury award—a $47.7 million verdict against Ford Motor Co. in 2004—came in the case of a 6-year-old girl left paralyzed when a fold-down car seat collapsed on her back. After Ford appealed, a confidential settlement was reached. “Just a horrible injury to a very young child that—with some very basic engineering—would have been prevented,” he says.
Jeff Harris, now with Harris, Penn & Lowry in Atlanta, was co-counsel with Scherffius on the Ford lawsuit. “Hands down, Andy’s one of the best trial lawyers I’ve ever seen,” he says. “He’s amazingly efficient. Andy’s probably had more influence on how I try cases than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I didn’t realize how much time I was wasting.”
In the Ford case, says Harris, the defense called a biomechanics expert who used charts and graphs to demonstrate at length how a 25-pound seat couldn’t possibly have inflicted such damage on a child. On cross-examination, Scherffius picked up a 25-pound weight he’d brought to court and challenged the witness: How about lying down on the floor and letting me drop this on your back?
“In 30 seconds, all that biomechanic stuff went out the window,” Harris says.
“A lot of lawyers are incredibly deferential to juries,” Harris adds. “But Andy’s forthright and honest, and jurors recognize that he’s not pulling their leg. All this research is now coming out, and he’s been doing it all for 30 years. Namely, don’t waste a jury’s time, be succinct, let the jury decide. I don’t know why it’s taken everybody else so long to figure it out.”
Scherffius grew up in a Democratic household and has been a regular contributor to Democratic candidates—and the occasional Republican—at the state and national levels. Politics remains an abiding interest for him.
“One reason lawyers are politically active is because of the nature of our business,” he says. “We understand the importance of who gets elected, particularly on the federal level, because of the appointment powers [regarding] the judiciary. Who the public votes into office can have consequences 30 or 40 years down the road.”
A mountain climber in his younger years—in the Andes and Alps—Scherffius still enjoys rock-climbing, cycling, skiing and catch-and-release fishing, activities he pursues during frequent trips to his second home in Bozeman, Mont. (Scherffius, who is separated from his wife, has an 18-year-old daughter, a freshman at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and a 14-year-old son who’s a freshman at Bozeman High School.) In a burnout profession, Scherffius is proudest of his longevity—although perhaps “pride” isn’t the right word.
“Pride comes before the fall; it’s a dangerous thing,” he says. “But I’ve been able to practice for 35 years and have been able, in my own mind at least, to maintain a high level of effort and concentration, and bring about good results for my clients.
“I’ve met so many fine people who have had terrible things happen to them,” he adds. “They’ve taken huge knocks in life but are not knocked down. And that part of my practice has been extremely rewarding.”